Nothing Wrong With Keeping Public Parks Public. So Long As the Public Uses 'Em.

Dallas Park Czar Mike Rawlings -- current president of the Park and Recreation Board, former homeless czar (he was not homeless, he was helping them), former Pizza Hut CEO and ad guy -- declares in The Dallas Morning News today that he wants the Dallas park system to be one of the top five in the country within three years. Not to be a nabob of negativity or anything, but I can't help recalling similar declarations a couple years ago that we were going to make the Dallas public school system the best in the country in X many years.

So much for declaring.

Rawlings is from the private domain, not the public one, so not surprisingly his ideas turn on making parks more private, raising private money for them and devoting the design of parks to the kinds of very focused sports activities one associates with ticket sales.

"I want to be customer-centric as a culture," he said, echoing his comments from an August Park and Rec budget briefing. Back then, he said, the city needs to "drive customer satisfaction up and costs down."

Fine. But I don't want to be consumer-centric as a culture. I would rather be coyote-centric as a culture. Let me explain.

The News story presents an interesting statistic showing that 48 percent of respondents to a recent survey said they like the Dallas park system the way it is. I wonder how that breaks out by ethnicity?

Look at the parks on any given Sunday. White Rock Lake is a Lance Armstrong-wannabe sports venue now, with hordes of white people in superhero costumes cranking around the lake on two thousand dollar bicycles. But the other parks are full of Hispanics.

Why? Well, I look at 'em, I see families grilling and sitting on blankets. White and black people in the city used to do that stuff, but now they don't, much. Don't ask me why. It's above my pay grade. Maybe Latinos are just more family-centric than white and black people.

The point is, I see a public use going on in the parks, and it's one that will not be especially well served by turning all of the parks into hyperventilated sports venues. The use I see out there is slow, quiet, demure, contemplative. We need to make sure we know what we're doing before we turn that inside out.

There is also this factor: During the recent city budget debate, council member Angela Hunt presented her own analysis of city budgets over the last 10 years showing that Dallas has slashed the budget for parks and rec by 40 percent.

I don't know if you noticed it, but I saw on the council a distinct sentiment in favor of more public support for public institutions. In fact, it was a majority sentiment -- the majority that voted for a tax hike rather than slashing services even more drastically.

Before we got straight for the private sector solution, do we want to have a debate on possibly restoring some of the public support for our parks and maintaining the public hegemony over them?

And then here's my biggest bitch. I am haunted by Sean Fitzgerald's wonderful photo that won the recent Trinity River photo contest, first published here, of two coyotes howling near the Trinity River Audubon Center. Especially if we're glowing to turn the land along the river into a city park, don't we need to pause and consider the value of not building a damn thing?

Neglect has bequeathed us a magnificent gift - vast tracts of land within the city that are natural and wild. We need to think about every possible way we can avoid screwing that up by building more trails and installing more lighting.

Rawlings has a great public service track record and a good name based on his homeless efforts. (I mentioned that he is not homeless himself, did I not? O.K., I just don't want to give a wrong impression.)

But declarations are better when based on some previous open discussion and consideration. I just hope everybody else at City Hall has his or her thinking cap on too for the parks.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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